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Dr Johnson and the stone


To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dr Johnson and the stone
Date: 16 March 2004 14:13

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your e-mail of 6 March, with your fifth essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''I refute it thus.' When he kicked the stone in the churchyard, what was Dr Johnson hoping to prove? Was the demonstration a success?'

You state, 'The root problem in this question is how do we have knowledge of things other than ourselves?'

This can be understood in two ways:

1. How is it possible for us to have knowledge of things other than ourselves?

2. What account should be given of our knowledge of things other than ourselves?

This bears directly on the stone kicking incident. It seems more plausible that Dr Johnson intended to cast doubt on Berkeley's theory of how we gain knowledge of things other than ourselves, less plausible that Dr Johnson was attempting to prove that we DO have knowledge of things other than ourselves.

Berkeley preached that our knowledge of things -- e.g. the stone in the church courtyard -- involves some form of metaphysical contact with an 'idea' which exists inside the mind of God. The process is one of mental-mental causation, contrasted with Locke's physical account of material-mental causation.

So Dr Johnson is not saying, 'No, Berkeley, you're wrong, there IS a stone there.' Rather, he is saying, 'No, Berkeley, you're wrong, our contact with objects is a physical process, not a mental process.'

But even if this is what Dr Johnson is saying, it seems strange that it had not occurred to him that Berkeley has an easy rejoinder. Our awareness of physical contact is a mental process. The mental-mental model is just as effective in explaining our experience of the external world as the material-mental model, in fact, far more effective because it avoids making a philosophically unjustifiable assumption: the existence of matter. On this view, Dr Johnson is simply being naive.

What relevance has Kant's philosophy to all of this? In addition to Berkeley's mental-mental theory of perception, and Locke's material-mental theory of perception, we now have TWO accounts of our contact with reality, the phenomenal and the noumenal.

The phenomenal account mirrors Locke's material-mental theory, only this time 'matter' is cleansed of any unwelcome metaphysical associations. It is not a 'thing in itself'. Things in themselves, according to Kant, exist in the noumenal world, outside space and time. We cannot even speak of a 'causal' connection in the only sense of causation which Kant will allow, namely, the lawlike connection between events in the phenomenal world.

Kant, unlike Berkeley, is prepared to talk of 'matter'. But this does go any way to meeting Dr Johnson's worry. Both on Berkeley and Kant's view, the ultimate reality of things is not physical.

But, equally, Kant and Berkeley have an easy response to Dr Johnson's challenge. The pain and strenuous physical contact is just an 'experience', nothing more.

But what more could it be?

As you may have gathered from the latter stages of the Metaphysics program, I think that there is more in Dr Johnson's response than meets the eye.

As I read it, the experiment is intended to show that practice -- physical agency and its conditions -- is prior to theory. The process of judgement is fundamentally a physical action. This is one version of the theory of 'Pragmatism', first expounded by the 20th Century American philosophers Pierce, Dewey and James. However, unlike Dr Johnson (and also, to some extent, the Pragmatists) I see this as something which cannot simply be 'demonstrated' by an experiment, but is rather the outcome of a philosophical argument, involving the critique of various versions of idealism and anti-realism.

Pragmatism is not realism. If anything, it is more extreme than anti-realism in refusing to allow any metaphysical content to the notion of 'truth'.

A lot of work has clearly gone into your essay. I am impressed that you have been reading Henry Allison on Kant. Allison is one of the foremost contemporary commentators on Kant. In the above, I have tried to show the relevance of Kant to the Berkeley-Johnson issue, something which you don't bring out clearly.

You make an interesting point when you say that memories can have a stronger effect on us than perceptions. This supports Berkeley's case against Dr Johnson, on what I would term the 'naive' interpretation of the significance of Dr Johnson's action. It is not an effective argument against the Pragmatist interpretation.

I apologize for introducing a misleading detail in the story of Dr Johnson. After writing the Metaphysics program, I came across the original account of the incident. apparently, it was a very large stone, and Dr Johnson's foot 'redounded' from it without moving it a single inch!

Well done for completing this program, which as I may have mentioned before is the most difficult of the six Pathways programs.

I will be sending you shortly your Certificate with my report.

All the best,